I have been a fan of George Takei for years, as his character of Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu of Star Trek was one of my favorite TOS crew members. I have admired his civil and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy and have followed his popular Oh Myyy Facebook site for years. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up his debut graphic novel, and it was a bonus that it was this month’s selection for Goodread’s I Read Comic Books.
In the same vein of the March trilogy by John Lewis, this book takes a long hard look at America’s shameful secret of forcing Japenese Americans into internment camps during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was mass hysteria that people of Japenese ancestry would be loyal to Imperial Japan and attack our mainland. President Franklin Roosevelt forced the relocation and incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast. George Takei and his family were one of these families.
George was a young boy when he, his parents and a younger brother and sister were forced from their Los Angeles home and sent to the first of two camps that they would spend three years in. They lost their house and dry cleaning business and endured humiliation after humiliation. That Takei and his siblings were so young, they did not fully understand the ramifications of their relocation, whereas his parents were the ones who had to deal with the daily legalized racism of these camps. In fact, Takei found some pleasure during those years as his parents worked hard to shelter their children and normalize their upbringing as best as they could. But these years also helped shape him into the leader he is today, for he learned about courage, leadership and activism from both his parents who made hard decisions in that time period.
Although this memoir concentrates on a retelling of his family’s time in the camps, Takei does take time to give a larger picture of what was happening in the world before, during and after his incarceration. He names some key political figures who pushed for these camps, but also extends grace to those that helped fight the injustice. It is a great irony that President Roosevelt, who helped the country out of the Great Depression and has many other laurels to stand on, was the one who signed orders for thousands of American citizens and/or residents to be sent to these internment camps. No wonder there was little mention of them in my history books growing up, for while we can condemn other countries for gross injustices, our country had taken away the liberty, finances and dignity of a segment of our population just because they were of a certain nationality. And this story sadly has a parallel today, as President Trump had set up camps for families trying to immigrate from Mexico, and has been blatant about his prejudices against people he does not deem American enough.
Harmony Becker was a perfect choice to illustrate this graphic novel, for her evocative black and white drawings were historically accurate, and brought to life daily camp realities, showing both the good and bad from a child’s perspective. In fact, some of her drawings slid into an anime-style when George and his siblings were experiencing joy. This not only was a great way to show their emotions, but it is also a nod towards Japanese culture. That Becker is #ownvoices elevates the story, for her talent and cultural sensitivity go hand in hand. I also wish to mention co-writers Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, who helped shape the narrative into a strong lesson for us all. Takei and his team deserve major kudos for shining a light on issues from the past so that way we learn from them today.